For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at ways I could economically improve the performance of my 2008 Mac Pro in ways that would help mainly with video editing.  I’m running Mountain Lion as my main operating system on a SSD with a Snow Leopard backup on a hard disk that also includes the main user profile and data.  The ML SSD references that user profile as well, so that for a slight cost in speed I get lots of storage that can be used when I am in either operating system.

About six weeks ago, I bought a Nflightcam for use in my flight school, and I’ve been bringing home video used in testing the camera and getting me used to editing and posting content for student use.  I’m not a fan of the current iteration of iMovie, so I do any editing either in iMovie HD or Final Cut Studio 2 (Final Cut Pro 7 and company).   I know I could move to Final Cut X or even Premiere Pro CS6, but for now, I’m saving what bucks I can and trying to use what I’ve got. (I also have some projects in FCP I need to finish.)    So, I’ve been looking for ways to speed up my video processing workflow. I didn’t really have the bucks to put all the FCP footage on a SSD.

My data and media (including a rather good-sized iTunes library) have been on a 1TB hard disk that was within 70GB of being full.  I offloaded the FCP and DVD Studio folders onto another 750GB hard drive and put my Contour Library files there as well.  Because I’ve got 16GB of RAM and I’m running on the SSD for most things, the computer’s speed was pretty good.  But I still wanted to see if I could decrease video processing time. So, after looking at various options and what they would cost in time and money, I decided to set up a RAID 0 using the two hard disks I use to run OS X.

The first thing I did was boot the Mac Pro up normally, go into System Preferences/User Accounts and reset the USER account from the SL disk to the one on the ML SSD (which has almost no data in it).  I rebooted onto the Snow Leopard disk (using the Option key) and used Carbon Copy Cloner to clone the Snow Leopard boot drive onto a 1.5TB Seagate drive inside an Esata box.  I then manually copied the files on the 750GB to the Esata drive, shut down the Mac Pro, opened it up, and mounted the Esata hard drive in a drive sled.  I booted the Mac Pro and, using the Esata drive as the boot disk, used its (Snow Leopard) Disk Utility to partition the 1TB hard drive into 750 and 250GB partitions.  I then used DU’s RAID tab to make a RAID 0 set of the 750 GB hard drive and the 750GB partition on the 1 TB hard drive. Rebooting, I used Carbon Copy Cloner to clone the boot drive onto the RAID 0 set.  That left me with a cloned hard drive and a Time Machine backup I could use to recover if things went awry, which I am happy to report they did not.

When I rebooted the Mac Pro normally, it booted into the ML SSD.  I reselected the “joint” user account now on the RAID 0 set and the computer rebooted, returning to the Dock and desktop I had before I had started it all.  I opened several applications (some of which I have loaded on both the ML and SL partitions) to check their operation and observed no anomalies, except for some registration data that was lost and had to be re-entered. Satisfied I had “normal” system operation, I wanted to see if I could boot into the Snow Leopard RAID set, so I rebooted the Mac Pro while holding down the Option key.  Much to my surprise, it showed me each INDIVIDUAL disk (Raid Set 1 1 and Raid Set 1 2) as well as the ML SSD, the Esata disk, and the ML Recovery partition! If software was managing the RAID properly, my thinking was that I could pick either disk in the RAID set and the Mac Pro would boot properly.  To test that, I selected the RAID Set 1 2 disk.  The system did boot normally into Snow Leopard, though the process seemed to be a bit slower than usual.  I launched applications and observed what I thought to be faster performance than I would have seen running single disk.  For grins, I also booted into RAID SET 1 1, and while it worked about the same, it did seem like the desktop appeared a little sooner with that selection.  (The RAID 1 1 hard disk is the actual 750GB hard disk while 1 2 is a 750GB partition.)  After checking system operation here, I shut down the machine, removed the Esata hard disk, and replaced it with my Windows 7 (BOOTCAMP) hard disk I had removed for this experiment.  I then booted into Windows 7; and while the initial loading appeared nominal, the machine crashed with a BSOD and a STOP message implying IRQ conflicts.  I booted the machine using Windows Safe Mode and got to the desktop and then rebooted into Windows 7 normally.  I had no more problems after that.

Overall, this seems to be a worthwhile experiment.  Overall responsiveness has definitely improved, though I don’t have any benchmarks to tell you how much.  I did see slightly LOWER Geekbench scores (like about 150-200 points) I believe might to be due to the extra overhead of the software RAID.  In every other way, though, the machine is snappier under both Mac Operating Systems.  For that, the cost is decreased hardware reliability I am mitigating by a good backup strategy and acquisition of a spare 1TB hard drive I’ll keep for quick retrieval in case a failure does occur.

I may not have SSD speeds with this setup or what I could achieve with a Velociraptor RAID set or maybe even hardware RAID, but considering this only cost me some time, this appears to have been a worthwhile thing to do.